Amber Kempthorn: (Extra)Ordinary Magic

Moonlight, a still from Amber Kempthorn’s animated film, Ordinary Magic: A Sunday in the Cuyahoga Valley, set to music of Benjamin Britten. The film will have its world premiere October 15 at EJ Thomas Hall in Akron, Ohio, with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33 performed by the Akron Symphony Orchestra.

Amber Kempthorn stirs meticulously-rendered everyday objects and revelatory encounters into the sweeping stardust of her dream-like works on paper. Since earning an MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2008, the Northeast Ohio native (born in Cuyahoga Falls, she also attended Ohio’s College of Wooster and Hiram College) has developed a tantalizing style, glimmering with mystique and memory as it upends the ordinary, moving familiar things into a landscape of the mind reminiscent of classic Chinese painting or Ukiyo-E visual drama. A cup with a rainbow, a bottle that might well be Budweiser, a lawn chair, a bunch of cherries materialize against a cloudy backdrop; or fragments of American pop culture heritage suggest a bygone state of mind: a fading mid-career John Wayne poster in one work is almost an homage; or a cartoon vulture, loafing under a dead tree, is almost a shock. Unironic, Kempthorn’s objects seem to float above and beyond their original context, free to invoke nostalgia, the feel of a past not so much mourned as missed. Something about Kempthorn’s lapidary birds and richly-textured tennis shoes, unworn tools and glowing lightbulbs, and the way they all seem to move in and out of her atmospheric pictorial grounds—something about this eccentric tide of musings feels musical, as if a soundtrack to Kempthorn’s digressions has been dialed back to silence but still hums inaudible tunes to the unconscious mind. Her paintings embody melodies of a visible, touchable sort, beloved places and fond things enriched by the artist’s hand.

In 2019 Amber Kempthorn found a few minutes, between her teaching duties at Hiram and Wooster and the Cleveland Institute of Art, to make an answer to the broad granting “Challenge” issued periodically by the Akron-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Knight offers substantial financial support to the best projects proposed by artists from the three regions it serves, in response to the question “What is your best idea for the arts?” There are only two stipulations: 1. The idea must be about the arts. 2. The project must take place in either Akron, Detroit, or Miami. Winners are awarded funding from a pool of about a million dollars, but are expected to come up with matching monies raised through their own efforts. Both generous and daunting, it’s not a deal that many artists are able to accept. But Kempthorn had what she thought was a truly viable idea. She submitted a 150-word pitch that described her own dream project.

Dawn, still from Amber Kempthorn’s animated film, Ordinary Magic: A Sunday in the Cuyahoga Valley. Image courtesy of the artist.

It germinated in childhood, when she was first stirred by the combined impact of narrative cartoons and symphonic music—a thought that she now developed as a plan to bring a work of classical music to a broader audience through the medium of animation. Her own musical knowledge and likings runs from pop and rock all the way to modern classical compositions. But especially important to her are the orchestral works brought to audiences, and especially to children, by the film industry. Disney Studios’ output, of course, has entertained and educated several generations of audiences world-wide with films that quote or sometimes satirize aspects of classical music. Probably best of all was Disney’s magical 1940 Fantasia, which may have starred Mickey Mouse but went on to make animation history using musical themes by Beethoven, Stravinsky, Stokowski, Paul Dukas (composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and others.

Not long before the Knight proposal Kempthorn had read a biography of Benjamin Britten, the preeminent twentieth-century British composer. Britten’s dramatic experimental music, his socially-engaged performance practice, and his relationship with his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears, lead her to pick Britten’s oeuvre as a source for the animation project. Not that Britten’s music was news to her—among her favorite modern classics were his Four Sea Interludes. By means of whatever synesthetic magic, those evocative pieces engaged her visual sense with particular vividness. Published separately from the opera Peter Grimes, Britten’s lovely yet fraught interregnums are often performed on their own as an orchestral suite.

Sunday Morning, still from Amber Kempthorn’s animated film, Ordinary Magic: A Sunday in the Cuyahoga Valley. Image courtesy of the artist .

“When I heard the music, at least ten years ago, I saw the moon moving across the sky!” We were watching the first of her four animations, “Moonlight,” on a laptop screen, and I knew exactly what she meant; a delicately-rendered, crater-riven paper moon was swinging like a pendulum in the darkening sky beyond a grid of window panes. Then leaving the window behind, the vision unscrolled, following the orb’s rhythmic progress until it plunged into the dark waters. Maybe these were the currents of the Shropshire Bay where the tragic climax of Peter Grimes takes place, but the water was still and calm. The music is full of hidden energies and promise. First performed in 1945 near the end of the Second World War, Peter Grimes premiered on June 7 that year, the second day of the Normandy invasion, a pivotal moment in world history that continues to echo in the postmodern era.

The opera itself is based on a section of the broad historical narrative poem The Borough by British poet George Crabbe, published in 1810. A story about social consciousness, private ambition, vanity and cruelty and the slow motions of universal justice, it was among the first important works of social realism in English literature, much admired by Britten and Pears and by their friend W.H. Auden. The Four Sea Interludes, which begin with an evocation of dawn, followed by the bright doings of a “Sunday Morning,” skipping to solemn moonlight and finally—as in the climax of Crabbe’s piece—a violent storm.

The Knight panelists were intrigued and gave Kempthorn a green light to pursue her plan, which included a public performance of Britten’s work by the Akron Symphony Orchestra, coordinated with a screening of the animation. Conversations with the orchestra’s conductor Christopher Wilkins and Executive Director Paul Jarrett were productive, but another area of immediate concern was the animation itself. Kempthorn had the artistic props for the job, but she’d never actually animated anything. At this point she approached a reputable Akron-based animation group, Red Point Digital, and began the collaboration that would bring her drawings and the familiar daily objects of her visual repertoire to life. A grant for $52,000.00 was offered as these parts of the plan began to fall into place, which the artist would match in a series of fundraising activities and events over a specified period of time. Easier said than done. Within a month the COVID pandemic swept across the globe changing public life and activity in unforeseeable ways; progress with Kempthorn’s project slowed down to a crawl. In the end everything may have worked to her advantage, though; since she needed to tuck two different, new skill sets under her belt, she probably needed the extra time. She had little experience of the ins and outs of not-for-profit fundraising. She needed to find sources of expertise in that world as well.

When I visited Amber Kempthorn at her home on the Hiram College campus to discuss the project, known now as Ordinary Magic, the visuals made to accompany the first three sections of Britten’s music were pretty much ready to go. By now the moon wasn’t the only character that swung and floated, bounced or twisted across the animated proscenium. Starting with a view through the multi-paned window, various objects—that rainbow cup, a pencil, a tape measure—had taken on a life of their own. In “Sunday Morning,” for instance, a bucket, hose and sponge decide to get busy (Cinderella-style), washing and rinsing a vintage blue motorcycle parked outside near a lawn chair. To the left a clothesline supports a flapping towel that adds its own striped flair to the balletic mayhem, as the ever-iconic Goodyear Blimp soars majestically overhead. At one point in the action dozens of soap bubbles multiply, glinting and filling the screen. Each section has a gently-comic dimension alternating with poignantly-lovely passages, matching the violins and woodwinds measure for measure. A beautiful, slender moth flutters and twirls to the music of a flute, acting as prima ballerina. All of this makes visual sense, thanks to the charm and persuasiveness of Kempthorn’s drawing, added to the skill of the various animators and the aptness of the animation software, courtesy of Red Point Digital.

Britten’s fourth Interlude is titled “Storm.” Turbulent music evokes the anger and frustration of the Shropshire townspeople, who have tried to save a young apprentice from the cruelly-ambitious fisherman Peter Grimes, and describes the violent coastal storms that take the lives of both apprentice and master. Here Kempthorn uses her pencil-character and the thin, lash-like marks that it makes to evoke the circling turbulence of the rain and wind, a self-referentiality that recalls many such tropes in early cartoons—ending with a scene featuring the moon and a sly nod to another lunar moment in history-making cinematic iconography.

The world premiere of the animated film Ordinary Magic: A Sunday in the Cuyahoga Valley by Amber Kempthorn will be presented “live” on screen accompanied by the Akron Symphony Orchestra playing Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes Op.33 on October 15 at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron, Ohio.

One hundred drawings selected from Amber Kempthorn’s preparatory studies and cels made for her work Ordinary Magic: A Sunday in the Cuyahoga Valley will open to be public and displayed throughout Bonfoey Gallery on October 7, in Cleveland, Ohio.

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